Listening to music while working is something many believe boosts productivity, but is this really the case?
It’s a question you’ve likely asked yourself before, especially if you work from home and enjoy listening to your favorite songs throughout the day. For some, music is nothing but a distraction, but for others, it seems to be a cornerstone of top performance.
Athletes listen to music to amp themselves up before training, and it’s common to have a playlist to stay focused and productive at the gym. Yet there’s a difference between feeling energized for movement and feeling focused for sitting at a desk all day.
This guide will dive into the research around music for productivity and explore the effects — both positive and negative — music could have on your ability to be productive.
Read on to find out what you could stand to gain from listening to music at work, what genres are best for concentration, and what the potential downsides are.
To discover what science has to say on the impact of music on productivity, we dug into high-authority research reports and sought out the most relevant empirical data on the subject. We also scraped the web to find out which songs and artists are the most popular during the week in 2022.
With the data, we can bring you a balanced view of both sides of the argument. While music certainly can have immense positive effects on productivity, it also has the potential to distract you.
The ultimate aim of this article is to answer the question: Does music increase productivity?
Which are the most popular songs to listen to at work?
Put together by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy specialist Dr. Emma Gray, Entrepreneur has a comprehensive list of the best types of music to listen to at work, including these popular songs which fall into the recommended “50 to 80 beats per minute” category. They include:
- "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake
- "Last Goodbye" by Jeff Buckley
- "The Lazy Song" by Bruno Mars
- "Chasing Pavements" by Adele
- “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus
- “Someday Baby” by Bob Dylan
- “Man Down” by Rihanna
- “The Farm” by Aerosmith
- “I Still Miss Someone” by Johnny Cash
What can I listen to to increase my productivity?
If you enjoy modern music and it gives you a lift, the following top 10 most-streamed songs could help raise your productivity levels:
- Blinding Lights by The Weekend
- Shape of You by Ed Sheeran
- Someone You Loved by Lewis Capaldi
- Dance Monkey by Tones and I
- Sunflower - Spider-Man by Post Malone, Swae Lee
- Rockstar by Post Malone, 21 Savage
- One Dance by Drake, Wizkid, Kyla
- Stay by The Kid LAROI, Justin Bieber
- Believer by Imagine Dragons
- Closer by The Chainsmokers, Halsey
Does listening to music help you focus on work?
So now you know what most of us listen to during the work week, the big question is — does music help us focus on getting things done?
Fortunately for music lovers, research suggests that it can. However, as you might imagine, the evidence isn’t clear-cut, so you’ll have to take the following information with a pinch of salt.
There isn’t a black-and-white answer about music’s impact on your ability to focus, but here’s our current understanding:
- Participants in scientific studies have reported improved productivity while listening to music
- Background music could be especially effective when completing trivial or repetitive tasks
- Music for some employees can help drown out external sounds that could distract them from work, such as the phone ringing or coworkers chatting
While these are the most positive takeaways from studies spanning several decades, there are some caveats to consider. Let’s break down each study and its results to discover what this could mean for you.
It boosts efficiency
It’s reasonable to assume that music could be a useful aid for jobs that require repetitive actions and tasks that can be completed without much thought. A study from the Journal of Applied Psychology appears to back this assumption up.
In 1966, during a study on employees working in a skateboard factory, the Journal reported that factory workers enjoyed listening to music during the day. Participants noted that listening to music was responsible for an increase in productivity.
The catch is that this was a purely subjective finding, as objectively, the music had no measurable impact on the employees’ productivity.
A more promising study on the positive impact of music on efficiency emerged in 1972 from the journal Applied Ergonomics. The study showed that background music boosted efficiency as participants completed their tasks, with one experiment proving an increase in productivity of 7.4%.
Pairing the Pomodoro technique with the right music can be a powerful productivity booster. This technique is a popular time management method that involves breaking your work into 25-minute intervals (called "Pomodoros") separated by five-minute breaks. During each Pomodoro, you can listen to one or two songs that help you stay focused. When the music stops, it's time for a break. This way, music not only aids in concentration but also helps in maintaining a healthy work rhythm.
It keeps you motivated
If there’s one thing most of us believe about music, it’s that it can keep us motivated — be it at work, the gym, or while doing chores around the house.
You see it everywhere:
- Elite athletes before a big game
- Gym enthusiasts while lifting weights
- Construction workers on a building site
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the claim that music for productivity helps with motivation and can enhance cognitive function — but let’s see if the research corroborates this popularly-held view.
A 2016 Totaljobs survey showed that 79% of respondents claimed to be more productive when they listened to music at work. From 4,553 responses, nearly half (48%) said that music helped them to focus.
With more people working from home than ever, finding ways to stay focused in a home environment is crucial. Music can play a significant role here. It can drown out household noises, create a work-like atmosphere, and help establish a routine. Moreover, remote workers can have more freedom to explore different genres and volumes of music without worrying about disturbing colleagues.
It helps you crack complex tasks
While music could boost motivation and help us with repetitive tasks, it’s often believed to be a hindrance to cognitively demanding work. There’s no definitive evidence to suggest that it can be a positive influence on cracking complex tasks.
However, in the same 2016 Totaljobs survey, 24% of respondents claimed that music allowed them to better block out external distractions, including ambient noise and the sound of conversation. 7% went as far as to suggest music also prevented intrusive thoughts from getting in the way of their productivity.
As such, there’s a chance that music can help us ignore internal and external distractions. Perhaps this could improve our focus and ability to tackle complex tasks which require our full attention.
But does music increase productivity?
From the various studies conducted over the past century that show music increases productivity, it’s clear that there are some compelling arguments to be made about music’s impact on performance. Research suggests that music stimulates the brain in a way that helps us concentrate. More specifically, music triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This dopamine release can make work tasks feel more enjoyable, helping us stay focused and productive. Meanwhile, the steady rhythm of certain music types can help regulate our heart rate and keep us calm, further aiding concentration.
Not all studies confirm the positive impact of music on productivity, though. In the 2017 Journal of Applied Research, a study on college students showed that performance related to cognitive tasks was worse when participants listened to music.
We’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions from the data. Still, it appears that despite the difficulty in proving the objective benefits of music on productivity, many people report that it has a positive influence.
How can music distract you?
In the interests of impartiality, we’ll now explore the negative impact music can have on productivity. Since music is, for many, a form of escapism, there’s truth to the idea that it captures our whole attention. As such, it might not be the best for moments when your work requires focus.
So, is music a distraction? It’s clear that not everyone benefits from listening to music while they work. Here are the main ways music can distract you or decrease your productivity:
It could affect your memory
Music can help you forget your daily life as a form of escapism, which can be a relaxing relinquishment of responsibility. At work, though, there’s a chance that music affects your working memory.
Working memory refers to all the information you have to store when solving problems and carrying out cognitively demanding activities. It’s what allows you to remember a list of action items, a series of events, or instructions for a task.
There’s evidence to suggest that listening to music could lower the amount of information you can keep in your working memory at one time.
It could make reading more challenging
Reading is an integral part of many jobs, as we’re constantly consuming information in the form of emails, memos, and reports.
Music that’s both loud and high-tempo has been shown to make it more challenging for us to read and understand information. Music as a whole might not impact your ability to read, but if you prefer music with a high BPM (beats per minute) rate, it might be best to listen to it outside of work hours.
It could take you out of “the zone”
Music has a profound ability to evoke emotions and recall memories. While this is one of the beautiful aspects of music, it can also be a source of distraction when you're trying to concentrate. A particular song might remind you of a past event, a certain person, or even a specific emotion, which could lead your mind away from the task at hand. Selecting neutral music that doesn't carry significant emotional weight can be a safer option if you want to maintain focus.
It can confuse your brain
While some people thrive when listening to lyrical music, others may find it distracting. This is particularly true if the task at hand involves language processing, such as reading, writing, or studying. The words in songs can interfere with the linguistic aspects of these tasks and make it harder to concentrate. For such tasks, instrumental music or genres without lyrics might be a better choice.
What is the best music for productivity?
Even if some studies show that music can improve our productivity levels, you can imagine that some types of music are more conducive to focus than others. For example, heavy metal is less likely to help you concentrate on writing a report, whereas classical music could provide the perfect soundtrack for productivity.
It’s also the case that some genres are more suited to certain tasks. While music for productivity with a higher BPM rate could help you perform repetitive tasks faster, slower music could put you in the zone for more complex tasks by blocking out external distractions. This could support healthy productivity at one’s own pace, as opposed to toxic productivity that puts the employee’s well-being at risk.
What genre of music increases productivity?
There are five genres that give us the best music for productivity. They are as follows:
Could the Mozart effect — in which listening to Mozart boosts IQ temporarily — come into play when listening to music for work?
Classical music is one of the best genres for focusing on a task as it’s often composed of gentle melodies and soft sounds from the piano, woodwind instruments, and others. This genre is often purely instrumental, and the lack of lyrics makes listening to classical music a great choice for concentration.
Believe it or not, your favorite fantasy movie soundtracks or video game scores could make for great productivity boosters as you work. Movie scores from popular franchises such as the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter could be both motivating and energizing for the right projects.
In recent years, there’s been a growing trend of listening to lo-fi music for studying, working, or getting things done. This is partly summed up by the popularity of the YouTube channel ‘Lo-fi Girl,’ which produces long animated videos accompanied by lo-fi songs.
This music genre mixes imperfect sounds with a rhythmic beat and generally consists of instrumental tracks with no lyrics.
Instrumental music is one of the safest options for work as there’s no risk of being distracted by lyrics. Tracks in this genre also tend to feature steady beats that facilitate focus, rather than classical music, which can sometimes be erratic in melody.
You can find many instrumental covers of popular songs, so you can enjoy a familiar boost of motivation without the distraction of lyrics.
While it doesn’t qualify as music, white noise is an excellent aid for concentration. Using a consistent, continuous frequency, white noise serves a similar function to noise-blocking headphones: it blocks out external sounds.
Like ambient music, such as nature sounds, white noise can be relaxing and conducive to focus.
Everyone's taste in music is different, and what works for one person might not work for another. Streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music offer personalized playlists based on your listening habits. These can be great tools for finding the best music that helps you focus. Spotify's "Discover Weekly" and "Daily Mix" playlists, for example, can introduce you to new songs and artists that fit your musical preferences and enhance your productivity.
How Wrike helps with productivity
What is the best music to listen to while working? There are several genres of music that are considered to be optimal for increased productivity, as we outlined above.
While the jury may be out on the extent to which music can be used to increase results at work, there’s one aid to productivity that works time and time again: project management software. Wrike can help you achieve better results company-wide by streamlining communication, offering scheduling tools, and providing strategic resources for future planning.
Wrike works especially well for creative agencies looking to eliminate silos and benefit from practical insights, but it also works for small businesses and enterprises alike. If your current systems are holding you back, Wrike can help you unlock hidden productivity potential. Say goodbye to towering tech stacks — start your free two-week trial of Wrike’s all-inclusive platform today.